My Turn: Do something within your power to save another life


Wednesday, June 07, 2017

This week alone in the news we’ve seen air strikes, suicide bombings and murders caused by hate. Violence over the hue of someone’s skin, the way they speak or how they dress. Hate-filled speech by neighbors at meetings and on Facebook. At dinner yesterday, my 8-year-old step-daughter asked her dad, “What’s a bomb?” My heart is heavy.

It’s easy to forget that we are more alike than we are unalike. I offer to you a different perspective.

Six years ago my brother got the call — he had Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer that starts in cells that are part of the body’s immune system. He was 28 years old. It started as a visible lump under his collar bone, and sometimes you wonder — how can so much suffering be caused by such a little lump? And so my story begins.

About one year into his treatment, he reached remission, and from there he was required to undergo an autologous stem cell transplant (a transplant using his own stem cells) to replace his bone marrow and stem cells that were destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation. Fast-forward 10 or so months and my brother’s cancer returned. This time the treatment plan had to change — his body needed help actually fighting the cancer cells, rather than just a replenishment of normal blood cells. This time around, he required an allogeneic stem cell transplant (a transplant using the stem cells from a healthy donor) and as his sister, I needed to be tested to see if I was a tissue match.

This was all new to me and our family. You hear a lot about cancer. We all know someone who has it, if you don’t have cancer yourself. But I knew nothing about stem cell transplants or what it meant to be a donor. First we had to find out if my brother and I were a match.

I received a kit in the mail and all I had to do was swab the inside of my cheek, place the swab inside a sealed bag, and mail it back to the hospital. A week or so later, my brother got the news from his doctor that changed our lives. I was, in fact, a match — a near perfect match — and we could move forward with his second stem cell transplant.

At this point in my story, you’re probably thinking, “Of course, you’d be a match, you’re his sister.” I assumed so, as well. Read on.

On Aug. 12, 2016, my brother and I underwent our stem cell transplant at Dana Farber/Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. There are two different ways to donate stem cells — peripheral blood stem cells (stem cells extracted from your blood after receiving five days of injections of a drug called filgrastim, used to increase the number of blood-forming cells in your bloodstream) and bone marrow (a surgical procedure where doctors use needles to withdraw liquid marrow from both sides of the back of your pelvic bone). Due to my brother’s specific treatment plan, he required pure bone marrow, and my bone marrow was taken from my pelvis. Two liters worth of my bone marrow was processed at Dana Farber and then brought to my brother immediately, who received it via an IV drip.

So how does my story end? Why am I telling you all this?

My brother is thriving. My pelvis has healed. And we were absolutely blessed to find a match right within our family.

The reality is that fewer than 30 percent of patients with a blood cancer or blood disease will find a related-donor; the other 70 percent, thousands of patients with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, sickle cell anemia or other life-threatening diseases, depend on the national bone marrow registry to find a match to save their life. Some day you or someone you love might depend on a complete stranger who might be a Muslim, a Republican, gay or straight. But it won’t matter because from the inside, they will be the same.

I plead with you to remember that we are more alike than we are unalike, and to do something positive for humanity.

You can visit www.bethematch.org and join the Be The Match national bone marrow registry.

Or you can attend one of my in-person donor drives in Greenfield over the next few months. The first will be this Saturday, June 10, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Pints in the Park event at the Greenfield Energy Park.

If you are between the ages of 18 and 44, patients especially need you. You could be someone’s cure.

“I note the obvious differences

between each sort and type,

but we are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,

than we are unalike.”

From “Human Family,” a poem by Maya Angelou

Ashli Stempel is a Greenfield
resident and a member of the
Greenfield Town Council.